China Just Won The U.S. Election
By James Palmer / November 9, 2016 / ForeignPolicy.com
The election of Donald Trump will be a disaster for anyone who cares about human rights, U.S. global leadership, and media freedom. That means it’s a victory for Beijing, where, as I write, the Chinese leaders near me in the palatial complex of Zhongnanhai are surely cracking open the drinks and making mean jokes.
There are four major victories for the Chinese leadership here, tempered by one possible fear. The first victory is the obvious one, the geopolitical victory; China no longer faces the prospect of Hillary Clinton, a tough, experienced opponent with a record of standing up to bullies. Instead, it faces a know-nothing reality TV star who barely seems aware that China has nuclear weapons, has promised to extort money from U.S. allies around China like South Korea and Japan, and has repeatedly undercut U.S. credibility as a defense partner. Trump is also exactly the kind of businessman who is most easily taken in by China—credulous, focused on the externalities of wealth, and massively susceptible to flattery. A single trip, with Chinese laying on the charm, could leave him as fond of China’s strongmen as he is of Russia’s Putin.
Countries like Vietnam, Myanmar, and the Philippines, uncertain about who to back in the contest for power in the Pacific, will swing massively China’s way, preferring a country that keeps its promises to one that can turn on the pull of an electoral lever. The strongest U.S. allies, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, no longer confident in the U.S. nuclear umbrella, will begin seriously considering other alternatives—like acquiring their own nuclear deterrent, prompting new tensions with China.
Generally, these developments will only embolden China. After the 2008 financial crisis, Beijing was convinced the world was going its way, resulting in a spate of overconfident military moves in southeast Asia which pushed some countries more firmly into the U.S. camp. Now, China’s confidence will return, and few in the region will have confidence in Washington’s ability to provide shelter from China’s nascent hegemony. Taiwan, already facing tough mainland rhetoric after electing anti-Beijing leader Tsai Ing-wen, will feel completely isolated—and perhaps be vulnerable to actual invasion—without the firm promise of U.S. protection.
The second victory is in the contest between authoritarianism and democracy. From a Chinese point of view, an electoral system that produces somebody like Trump—utterly inexperienced in governance but a skilled demagogue—is an absurdity, the equivalent of picking a major company’s CEO through a horse race. In China, leaders need to be carefully chosen, groomed, and pushed, gaining experience at every level of the Communist Party system before being anointed for the top job. (That comes amid a flurry of brutally nasty and corrupt internal struggles at each level, mind you.)
China aspires toward the Singaporean model of carefully controlled elitism, a country in which Trump represents, in the words of one writer, everything they were taught to fear about democracy. The crudity of Trump’s triumphant campaign gives credence to Chinese media’s criticisms of a “chaotic political farce.” The likely split between the popular vote and the Electoral College will only further the often-made case that U.S. democracy is a sham.
Trump himself has given every sign of governing like the authoritarian leaders China has favored from Myanmar to Zimbabwe. Every piece of paranoid security theater he has threatened, from a ban on Muslim immigration to the wall with Mexico, will be used by Beijing to justify its own myriad oppressions.
That leads to the third victory, on human rights. Every year, the United States puts out a report on China’s human rights calamities—and every year China responds with its own report, a mixture of indignant bluster and genuine poking at American sore spots, from police treatment of minorities to the gender gap in pay. But under President Trump, Beijing’s stockpiled ammunition against U.S. hypocrisy on human rights looks set only to grow, given his close ties to white nationalist groups, the likely gutting of civil rights, and his—and his supporters’—attacks on the notion of press freedom. Any Western attempts to call out China’s reassertion of traditional patriarchy, from the arrest of the Feminist Five to the Communist Party’s absence of female leaders, can be countered with any number of references to the new groper-in-chief. Resurgent Republican homophobia will be a gut blow to China’s gay rights movement. Read more…